Janelle Monáe continues a steady, assured rise to glory in the film industry. The performer who is best-known as a prolific singer-songwriter and rapper rose to widespread acting acclaim with awards season heavy hitters two years ago. She is clearly here to stay with three new projects announced within the same week.
Disney’s live-action and CGI hybrid remake of Lady and the Tramp, which is set to land on the company’s inaugural streaming site, adds Monáe to their star-studded line-up, according to Variety. Monáe joins Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok), Justin Theroux (Maniac), and more as part of the voice cast of the film, while Kiersey Clemons (Dope) and Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) will take care of the live-action portions of the proceedings.
Lady (Thompson), a sheltered Cocker Spaniel, suddenly experiences a disruption in her home life after her owners Darling (Clemons) and Jim Dear (Mann) introduce a new family member — a baby — into the mix. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, Lady finds herself taking to the streets. But once there, her encounters with a mixed-breed stray named the Tramp (Theroux) inspires a tentative, if tumultuous love.
Monáe has been cast as Peg, a fellow stray that Lady meets at the pound who gives our protagonist some crucial life advice. Under the guidance of The Lego Ninjago Movie director Charlie Bean – who will helm from a script by Support the Girls’ Andrew Bujalski – we revisit this classic story of two dogs dramatically falling in love. I don’t know if we need it as much as other live-action Disney adaptations that are currently in the works, but its cast gets more and more irresistible by day. What’s not to enjoy?
Additionally, Variety unveiled two other upcoming ventures for Monáe in a separate report. Firstly, she is due to appear in an undetermined role in Focus Features’ long-gestating Harriet Tubman biopic, simply titled Harriet. Cynthia Erivo was first revealed to portray the titular role back in 2016, and a stacked cast including Leslie Odom Jr. (Murder on the Orient Express, Hamilton) and Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), among others, has also formed.
Tubman remains one of the most vital political figures in American history. Born into slavery but eventually escaping north, the abolitionist most notably led slaves to freedom prior to the Civil War through the Underground Railroad. Moreover, she took up the mantle of a Union spy, a nurse, and was a supporter of women’s right to vote. Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) will direct Harriet from a screenplay that she co-penned with Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans).
Finally, Monáe is up for another animated feature, this time with STX Entertainment’s adaptation of the Uglydoll. Yes, I’m talking about the award-winning line of monster plush toys that have captured the attention of many, including Sasha Obama and Snoop Dogg.
The adventure comedy – billed as just UglyDolls – focuses on a group of these eponymous outcasts who must learn to embrace their own differences in a bid of self-actualization. Living in Uglyville, Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson) and her fellow Uglydolls discover that self-love and so-called perfection are not perfectly synonymous concepts.
The film is already brimming with musicians of all sorts among its cast besides Clarkson and Monáe. Pitbull (Epic), Nick Jonas (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), and Blake Shelton (The Angry Birds Movie) are all part of the Uglydolls family. And of course, every single one of them is going to perform a number of original songs alongside voicing their characters in the movie.
An animated feature based on the Uglydoll brand first came to fruition as an Illumination Entertainment production in 2011. STX eventually stepped up to the task several years later, when UglyDolls was first announced as part of the studio’s newly-minted family division. Uglydoll co-creator David Horvath said of the collaboration back in 2015:
“We created Uglydoll on the premise that real beauty is found in the little twists and turns that make us who we are. We could not be more excited or optimistic about the future of the Uglydoll universe in the hands of the STX Entertainment team.”
The project could have been directed by Robert Rodriguez, who once entertained many a millennial child with the Spy Kids movies. Now, Kelly Asbury of Gnomeo and Juliet fame – and I myself am partial to his feature film debut, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron – has taken charge. Erica Rivinoja (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2) wrote the screenplay. Fun fact: STX is building an Uglydolls franchise too, with an animated children’s show being developed at Hulu.
In going for both the serious and the whimsical when picking onscreen fare, Monáe is absolutely getting the best of both worlds. It’s fabulous to see her purely have fun when choosing certain film roles, mirroring the entertainment factor present when she crafts one of her intricate music videos for her Fandroids.
Importantly, like the rest of her music – which culminates in the epic album and “emotion picture” Dirty Computer right now — Monáe clearly demonstrates that she is ready to combine the experience of spectacle with the reality of activism.
Monáe is fully dedicated to immersion and aesthetic. She readily went from the more restrained yet stylized affair of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight to the vibrant girl power of Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures in her debut year as a full-fledged screen actress. In contrast, as a lead actor in the particularly self-referential episode of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams called “Autofac,” she is totally volatile and eerie. Regardless, the episode’s thematic critique of consumerism in the digital age is crystal clear and powerful.
Hence, Monáe’s artistry still presents as comforting, warm, and accepting. Her authenticity seeps into everything she does. I absolutely can’t wait to see what she brings to the table in the fictional adaptation of the celebrated documentary Marwencol either. In Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen, she plays a friend to Steve Carell’s protagonist.
It’s never a bad time to be a multitalented wonder like Janelle Monáe, and we’re lucky to witness the blossoming of her Hollywood career.